Wilma Rudolph: A Life of Triumph

Today we celebrate the life of Wilma Rudolph. Rudolph was an African-American athlete. She is an Olympic Champion, once named the fastest woman in the world. Everyday is Black History.

Rudolph was born premature and sickly on June 23, 1940, in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee. Stricken with polio as a child, she had problems with her left leg and had to wear a brace. It was with great determination and the help of physical therapy that she was able to overcome the disease as well as her resulting physical disabilities.


Rudolph as a child.

Growing up in the South before segregation was outlawed, Rudolph attended an all-black school, Burt High School, where she played on the basketball team. A naturally gifted runner, she was soon recruited to train with Tennessee State University track coach Ed Temple.

While still in high school, Wilma Rudolph, nicknamed “Skeeter” for her famous speed, qualified for the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. The youngest member of the U.S. team at the age of 16, she won a bronze medal in the sprint relay event. After finishing high school, Rudolph enrolled at Tennessee State University, where she studied education. She also trained hard for the next Olympics.

In the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome Rudolph became the first African American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games.

Wilma Rudoph

Rudolph with her three Olympic medals.

A track and field champion, she elevated women’s track to a major presence in the United States. Rudolph became an international star due to the first international television coverage of the Olympics that year.


Rudolph crossing the finish line in 1960.

The powerful sprinter emerged from the 1960 Rome Olympics as “The Tornado,” the fastest woman on earth.The Italians nicknamed her La Gazzella Negra (“The Black Gazelle“); to the French she was La Perle Noire (“The Black Pearl”). She is one of the most famous Tennessee State University Tigerbelles, the name of the TSU women’s track and field program.


Rudolph signing autographs for fans.

Rudolph officially retired from track and field in 1962 at the age of 22. She went on to gain her degree in Elementary Education from Tennessee State University. She was a school teacher as well as a sports track teacher.


Rudolph in her cap and gown after receiving her education degree.

Her triumph gained her many awards and recognition. She was United Press Athlete of the Year 1960 and Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year for 1960 and 1961. Also in 1961, the year of her father’s death, Rudolph won the James E. Sullivan Award, an award for the top amateur athlete in the United States, and visited President John F. Kennedy.

Wilma Rudolph at the White House with JFK and Lyndon B. Johnson

Rudolph at the White House with President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

She was voted into the National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1973 and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974. She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, honored with the National Sports Award in 1993, and inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. In 1994, the portion of U.S. Route 79 in Clarksville, Tennessee between the Interstate 24 exit 4 in Clarksville to the Red River (Lynnwood-Tarpley) bridge near the Kraft Street intersection was renamed to honor Wilma Rudolph.A life-size bronze statue of Rudolph stands at the southern end of the Cumberland River Walk at the base of the Pedestrian Overpass, College Street and Riverside Drive, in Clarksville.


On July 14, 2004, the United States Postal Service issued a 23-cent Distinguished Americans series postage stamp in recognition of her accomplishments.


Wilma Rudolph was an amazing woman. Lets honor and remember her life today. She used her talent and skill to attain the goals she sought. She worked hard and believed in her abilities. Family we must do the same. We must couple or talents with hard work and belief in ourselves. This is a winning combination. We can all become great if we use our god given skills, hard work and confidence to make greatness happen for us. So look in the face of failure and defeat and know that you, like Wilma Rudolph are not limited by sickness, problems or circumstance. You too, can reach heights of success, achievement and greatness. ~Know Your Worth~ -M. Millie

Olympians Florence Griffith Joyner and Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph with fellow Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner


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